1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
The poetry of Psalm 121 has always drawn me to it, but a trip to the Holy Land gave me a new appreciation for it. While touring the area of Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel (a city of Greek-Roman culture known for its worship of foreign gods) we visited the ancient Temple of Pan. Hewn out of large and imposing hillside, this was a place of pagan worship and human sacrifice, offered to an ancient fertility god.
Our tour guide suggested that the first line of Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” might have reflected the tendency of people to look to these sorts of hillside temples, hoping for the favor of the deities who resided there. But that Psalm 121 is a clear affirmation that “my help” comes not from the hills, or the gods of the hills, but from the Lord.
Perhaps this view is supported by the book of the prophet Jeremiah, where midway through his forceful call to repentance among the people of Judah (3-4:4), he says, “Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains. Truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel.”
Or we can look to II Kings 23, which outline the reforms of King Josiah, including the expulsion of the idolatrous priests who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, to the moon, etc. Perhaps Psalm 121 aims to remind us that the sun and the moon are not answerable to Baal, but to the Lord God of heaven and earth, and that those who are under the Lord’s care need not live in fear.
A prominent theme in the story of humanity is our tendency to seek our security in that which cannot secure us. We are a fearful people, and so we are quick to align ourselves with anything that seems to hold the promise of our well-being.
Psalm 121 declares that we need look nowhere else, but to the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps (unlike Baal, who occasionally naps, according to Elijah in I Kings 18:27).
The people of God waited a long time for the Messiah to arrive. Generations came and went, and fond hopes grew dim. For the longest time, the heavens were silent. But the witness of Psalm 121 was undeterred. Our Lord can be trusted. In a world of peril and threat, our Lord is our keeper, our shade, the One who will keep us from all evil, the One who will keep our lives. Wherever we go, wherever we are, our Lord is present there, with us and for us. The gods of the hills can’t do that. They can’t be Emmanuel. But our God can be, and is.
A prayer for this day:
We lift up our eyes to you, O God, for you are our help, our hope, and our peace, through Christ. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Ed McLeod (D. Min., 1985)
First Presbyterian Church, Raleigh